Did #Viking berserkers go #berserk?

360px-Fliegenpilz-in-Oerebro-Schweden

Fly Agaric Mushroom from Örebro, Sweden

This is a slightly modified and shortened extract from a paper I gave at the Unlocking the Vikings 2014 conference.

One question I am almost invariably asked when I mention my thesis topic to people is, “How did berserkers go berserk?” People are fascinated by berserker pharmacology, berserker psychology and berserker physiology. Most commonly they want to know if berserkers really took magic mushrooms. When I inform them that we have no contemporary or literary evidence for the consumption of magic mushrooms as an aid in battle, they often move on to ask if they were just psychologically unbalanced, or had something physically wrong with them (like Paget’s Disease, as Byock has suggested for Egill Skallagrimsson).

There is a problem with this question: it assumes that berserkers actually did go berserk and never questions whether this is really the case. Some examples of warriors going berserk do occur in Old Norse literature. For example, At Vínheiðr, Egill Skallagrimsson’s brother Þórólfr appears to go berserk when he slings his shield on his back and strikes forward into the melee killing all around him as he goes:

‘Þórólfr gerðisk þá svá óðr, at hann kastaði skildinum á bak sér, en tók spjótit tveim höndum; hljóp hann þá fram ok hjó eða lagði til beggja handa; stukku menn þá frá tveggja vegna, en hann drap marga.’ (Thorolf became so enraged that he slung his shield on his back and took his spear in both hands. Then he ran forward and laid about him on both sides. Men all around him ran from him but he killed many), Egils saga, Chapter 53.

Likewise Haraldr harðraði at the Battle of Stamford Bridge appears to go berserk in a passage written in very similar style to that in Egils saga.

‘Þá varð Haraldr konungr Sigurðarson svá óðr at hann hljóp fram allt ór fylkingunni ok hjó báðum höndum. Helt þá hvártki við honum hjálmr né brynja. Þá stukku frá allir þeir, er næstir váru.’ (King Harald Sigurdsson became so enraged that he ran forward all the way out of his battle-line and laid about him on both sides. Neither helm nor mailcoat could withstand him. Then all those who were nearest ran away) Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, Chapter 92.

The circumstances are similar to those under which modern soldiers have gone berserk, which suggests that the sagas’ authors were familiar with the idea that men might go berserk in battle. However, neither Þórólfr nor Haraldr is ever called a berserker. It is never stated that they undergo berserksgangr, and they do not engage in the activities normally associated with berserkers such as biting their shields or howling. The medieval saga authors did not treat them as berserkers and probably did not consider them to be berserkers.

Berserksgangr (usually translated as ‘berserker fit’ or ‘berserker fury’ although that is a different can of semantic worms that I shall save for another time) is signalled by shield-biting and howling. It usually occurs before a fight or battle and has been construed by most scholars as symptomatic of an altered state of mind: of going berserk. I dispute this, as the examples below show.

In Grettis saga (chapter 40), Snækollr begins biting his shield and howling even before dismounting from his horse, as he readies himself for battle with Grettir, an act that Grettir uses to good advantage. He kicks the base of the shield up into Snækollr’s mouth apparently breaking his jaw and then drags him from the horse and cuts off head. Snækollr was obviously not ready for battle and had certainly not gone berserk.

In Egils saga (chapter 64), the berserker Ljótr inn bleiki (Ljot the Pale) also bites his shield and howls at the start of the fight as he approaches the place for the duel. However, this berserksgangr is not an example of going berserk, because he then pauses to exchange words with Egill before taking a bit more time to get ready for the fight. Then, in the middle of the duel, Ljótr asks for a break, and he and Egill have a rest and a verbal exchange before continuing the fight which ends with the death of Ljótr. A berserk warrior is unlikely to have had the presence of mind to ask for a break.

Finally, to take one last example, the Viking or half-berserker Moldi in Svarfdæla saga (chapter 7) turns up with eleven men to discuss marrying jarl Herröðr’s daughter in a variant of the berserk suitor motif that Blaney identified as the most common usage of berserkers in sagas. He and his men enter the hall, wade through the fire and bite their shields. Then, instead of attacking in a frenzy as one might expect from the shield-biting motif, Moldi greets the jarl well and is invited to take a seat. Moldi’s suit does not end well, because he is killed in a duel as a result of the exchange regarding the jarl’s daughter, but he had certainly not gone berserk when he entered the hall, because he was sufficiently in control to stop and have a chat.

These examples show that the authors of these sagas did not consider berserkers to have lost all control. Given that berserksgangr only occurs at the start of combat, and not during the battle, it seems likely that the shield-biting and howling that are part of it were a form of posturing intended to help the berserker motivate himself for battle, while also intimidating his foes. One might compare it to the haka performed by the All Blacks before a rugby match which has all the hallmarks of berserksgangr with grimacing and posturing to put the opponents off while building team spirit and morale.

So, to answer the question in the title, berserkers in Old Norse literature did not generally go berserk. By extension, I would suggest that Viking berserkers did not go berserk either. Those elements of their activities that are remembered in Old Norse literature do not indicate a berserk state. Going berserk is likely to have been more of a hindrance than a help in a period when warfare relied upon maintaining an unbroken wall of shields. It is entirely possible, if not probable, that some warriors went berserk in any army of the period (not just Viking armies), because of the stress of warfare, but the evidence does not support habitual berserk states for Viking berserkers.

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Movie Monday: The Viking (1928)

ruarigh:

I just came across this film today which led to this blog post about it. If you scroll down a bit, there is a link to the whole film on Youtube. I plan to watch it soon, but loved the tone of this post from Gonzo History and wanted to share it.

Originally posted on The Gonzo History Project:

the-viking-movie-poster-1928-1020198222

This week’s film is kind of an oddity. It’s silent — one of the last big silent films — but it’s in colour. In fact, just as it was one of the last big silent films, it was one of the first big colour films, widely considered at the time to be one of the best uses of the Technicolour process. As we’ll see, it looks pretty good!

Well, OK, maybe not good per se.

Anyway, it’s an adaptation of a 1902 novel, the which you can find on Gutenburg and which I have also put on my Kindle but not read yet. The novel is in turn sort of based on The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders. Sort of.

Ready? Here we go.

Our story begins with a little casual … not racism as such, but a little reminder that 1928…

View original 570 more words

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Vikingdom : The Blood Eclipse

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Things I learnt about Vikings from watching this film:

  • Thor dyes his hair. Is he going grey under that terrible red hairdo? And what about those red contact lenses?
  • Thor takes fashion advice from Games Workshop Elves. Check that helmet out.
  • Vikings can climb cliffs like monkeys.
  • Vikings can leap over walls like giant, vicious, violent fleas.
  • Vikings used massed archery like a fifteenth-century English army.
  • Metal kite shields were in common usage during the eighth century.
  • Wrestling bears is a popular Viking hobby.

Things I was left wondering:

  • Why is Thor trying to free the giants?
  • Who am I kidding with all this historical pedantry?

This film uses the allure of the Viking to entice unwitting history buffs into watching it. Like Hammer of the Gods before it, it has nothing to do with real history and really belongs in the realm of fantasy. The Norsery is purely skin deep and provides little beyond some names and a plot. The film even lacks the momentum of Hammer of the Gods, so watching becomes tedious and the concentration wavers. I’m sure the answer to my question about freeing the giants was in there somewhere but I must have lost focus and missed that bit. I’m not sure I care enough about the film to watch it again to find out.

So, having let this post languish for ages, in a fit of mental sogginess I watched this film again today. I now understand. Thor wants to punish humanity for forsaking the old gods and wants to rule the earth. That makes sense then. What about the film though? Visually it felt like watching a computer game with grainy metallic colours throughout. The dialogue was quite wooden. There is lots of action and macho posturing. There’s lots of carnage in slow motion, if you like that sort of thing. You don’t have to think too hard about it all. In fact, I would recommend not thinking about it at all if you watch it. Just enjoy the ride and accept it for what it is: a cheaply made Viking movie with poor special effects. This is totally B-movie territory. It’s not quite in ‘so bad it’s good’ territory, but some might consider it so. Interestingly, I find myself slightly less negative about it now that I have watched it a second time. I wonder if that is because my expectations were suitably lowered.

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Happy 200th Birthday, Norway.

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Today is the Norwegian Constitution Day (Nasjonaldagen or Grunnlovsdagen). It is a national holiday in Norway and is marked with parades, national dress wearing and flag waving. I remember it being particularly fun back in the eighties when I lived in Norway. Today’s 17th May celebration is the bicentenary of the signing of the constitution at Eidsvoll. This act marked the start of the route to independence for Norway. It had originally been a separate country and Viqueen has a virtual 17th May parade with the legendary founder of Norway on her blog. However, Norway and Sweden became part of Denmark with the Kalmar Union of 1397, which was a response to increasing commercial pressure from the south. Sweden gained its independence again in 1523, but Norway had to wait nearly another 400 years. Due to bad choices made by Denmark in the Napoleonic Wars, Norway joined a union with Sweden later in 1814 and it did not gain full independence until 1905, but 1814 marked the start of that road.

Gratulerer med dagen, Norge.

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How the Viking got his horns

Roberta Frank has shown how the ‘traditional’ horned helmet came to be associated with the Vikings. Carl Doepler was the costume designer for Wagner’s first Bayreuth production of Ring des Nibelungen in 1876, and he created a simple horned helmet for the production. The fate of the horned helmet was sealed. Where previously it had been the preserve of the Ancient Briton or Gaul, now it was firmly associated with the Viking brand in the popular consciousness. Nowadays we know better. Vikings did not have horns on their helmets. Nevertheless, Vikings are still depicted as wearing horned helmets in many places, especially in advertising, as a quick trawl of Google for Viking-related business names shows. It is an immediately recognisable brand that can be used for a range of products to indicate various attributes of that product. I do struggle to understand the reasoning behind Viking Scaffolding, but Viking River Cruises and Viking Taxis do make some sense.

Archaeology does not support this horned image either. No Viking Age helmets have been found that feature horns. However, I have another theory that leads me to believe that Doepler may have had greater knowledge of Viking headgear than is generally credited. It occurred to me that Vikings fought a lot. Fighting is a thirsty business and requires a Viking to carry a lot of gear. He has axes, swords, spears, knives, shields and armour to carry with him when he goes to war, so a Viking must have had his hands full. We know that Vikings drank from horns, so it occurs to me that they must have taken those horns with them too. With all that war-gear to carry the Vikings had their hands full, but they were not stupid. Clearly they must have found a way to affix horns full of mead to their helmets, leaving their hands free for the important stuff like big axes and swords and spears. Presumably they would detach the horns, drink the ale or mead, and discard them before battle, which is why no helmets with horns have been found. And that is how the Vikings invented the beer hat.

Now all I need is a research grant to look for horn middens near Viking Age battlefields.

Reference:

Frank, R., “The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet” (2000)

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The Viking Experience by Marjolein Stern and Roderick Dale

The Viking Experience

The Viking Experience is a general history of the Vikings by Dr Marjolein Stern and yours truly, and I am excited that it is now available through Amazon. Far be it from me to praise this book overmuch but I am really quite pleased with how it turned out. It is in full colour with plenty of illustrations and comes in a slipcase with removable inserts illustrating important documents of the time. Rather than blather on about it, I shall let the publisher’s blurb speak for me:

‘From the remote and unforgiving landscape of northern Europe, the Vikings voyaged to far-flung areas of the world with extraordinary consequences. The Viking Experience examines the origins, explorations and settlements of these seafaring people, exploring their impact on the world as colonizers, craftsmen, traders and state-makers. This highly illustrated book provides a revealing portrait of the Vikings’ incredible legacy with a collection of facsimiles and translations of rare documents, including:

  • Drawings and photographs from archaeological dig sites
  • An extract from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, describing a Viking raid on Lindisfarne
  • The Skálholt map that marks Norse discoveries in the western Atlantic
  • A page from the Stockholm Codex Aureus, an illuminated manuscript that was looted by the Vikings
  • The Vinland map showing Norse exploration of America as an example of recreated Viking history’
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Hammer of the Gods – Some Thoughts

Hammer of the Gods

Hammer of the Gods

dir. by Farren Blackburn (Vertigo Films, 2013)

The plot

Steinar must travel to find the macguffin (his brother) and return to his dying father with it. In doing so he loses his humanity and becomes a hardened warrior fit to be king.

See the trailer here.

The film

The film opens with a shot of a young boy on a beach. He sees a Viking ship sailing out of the fog, its sail billowing and its oars out. I did not count them, but it looked like about ten or fifteen oars on each side, so a minimum crew of twenty. This being the case, why did only six warriors emerge onto the cliff top to fight the Saxon levies? For that matter, why was the ship obviously under full sail when the oars were being used too? These things jarred at the start, and this sense of wrongness continued when the fight began and I noticed that none of the warriors had a shield and that several of the weapons were blatantly anachronistic. The lack of shields is an issue all the way through the film until the very last scene. Other issues included the ‘Saxons’ dressed like ninjas with skull face masks and the blue-painted cave people at the end. Then there was the ignorance of what a runestone was; Steinar had to ask what it was. Finally, there are few female characters in the film and almost all are completely incidental to the plot. Although advertised as a Viking film set in 870-71, this film quite clearly was not that. In reality it is a fantasy quest film and the setting need not have been England in the ninth century, because the events were quite generic with nothing that made it specifically Viking in nature.

Having got the complaints out of the way, I can address the rest of the film. The plot is minimal, as described above. After the initial direction of the action towards finding the macguffin, things just seemed to roll from one fight to the next with little explanation of who or why things were happening. It reminded me of a highly structured D&D adventure where all travelling is specifically to get the characters to the next plot device / encounter with the baddies. As the film progressed, the pace picked up until the ending, which was reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. Elliot Cowan as Hakan the Ferocious even seemed to be trying to get the look and feel of Brando as Colonel Kurtz. It had a certain inevitability about it from start to finish. At no point did I wonder if Steinar would die or fail in his quest. There was no real tension or even concern for the characters. Instead the momentum of the film kept me watching, helped by the stunning Welsh scenery amid which it was filmed, and the quality of the cinematography which was pretty good. The casting was also reasonably good, with the main characters giving decent performances. One point that tickled me was the use of a smattering of Old English dialogue. That was definitely a plus point.

Overall this film was not a total waste of time. Don’t expect a historically accurate epic, high art or even great cinema, because this film lies firmly in B-movie territory, but, if heroic gore-laden action adventure is your thing and you can accept the thin plot then you may enjoy it.

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